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Chubby Checker Rises from the Bunker

Copyright 2015 - Garry Sowerby

Reproduction only by permission from the Author

Reprinted from the book "Driven Mind" by Garry Sowerby

The book can be purchased here

In 1982, when Checker Motors Corporation of Kalamazoo, Michigan stopped production of the iconic hulks that had become synonymous with the term New York Taxi, a bit of an American tradition skidded onto the hard shoulders of reality.

How would all those New Yorkers and taxi riders from all over the U.S., where the massive but technically crude behemoths cruised for fares, ever get used to the back seat of a Ford Crown Victoria or Chevy Impala? As sad as it seemed, the time had come to move the taxicab business from 1950s technology into the ’80s.

Like swapping beehive hairdos for 1980s-era big hair, the venerable Checker A-11 taxicab had run its course.

At the time, Ken and I were hacking the streets of Toronto doing the night shift in beat-off Plymouth Coronet taxicabs. It wasn’t lucrative but we were managing to fend off creditors from the financial overrun we had whipped up driving around the world in Red Cloud. While the cab jobs helped, we needed another global program, something that would allow us to tweak the adventure driving acumen we had garnered from the trials and tribulations of pulling off the around-the-world record.

A solution came in the form of a phone call from an organization in London, England that was recreating the original Peking- (now Beijing) to-Paris Motoring Challenge on the 75th anniversary of its first and only running. Ken and I figured our ship had come in.

We considered going to auto manufacturers for a vehicle and financial support but realized our chance of winning in a field of 100 entries was limited. So how to stand out, win or lose?

The concept turned out to be right in our faces. All we needed to do was drive a taxicab and run the meter the whole way from Peking to Paris. We would build a life-sized dummy named Halibut Parks and take it with us, a mascot who would be switched for a celebrity when we rolled into Paris.

“Who is Halibut Parks and how much will it cost him to take a taxi from Peking to Paris?”

Then it was up to us to find sponsors savvy enough to realize the ‘boys’ from the Canadian Maritimes were the ones that would put their products in front of billions of folk who would be clamoring to find out who the mysterious Halibut Parks was.

We needed something iconic for the cab and set our sights on a Checker taxi. When we called their head office in Kalamazoo and got the word about production stopping, sponsorship was out of the question. However, they told us one car remained. Hmm, the last Checker taxi!

Paul Rimstead (Journalist), Ken Langley and Garry Sowersby

The problem was it was powered by a 3800 Buick V-6 engine, fueled by propane. It was their environmental package and only a few had been built. A bigger problem was the $9,700 USD price tag.

It didn’t take long for the Halibut Parks taxi fare concept to gain traction. The Toronto Sun newspaper jumped on with a commitment to publicize the story. The newspaper would send veteran bad-boy journalist Paul Rimstead with us and Halibut Parks. Over the next few weeks we found a bank that would finance the purchase and, with the Toronto Sun sponsorship in our back pocket, we revved up financial support from Canadian Tire Corporation and Detroit Diesel who would repower the Checker with a 6.2-litre V-8 diesel engine.

Our major sponsor was R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company (ironic since neither of us smoked) who would paint the Checker like a giant pack of Export A cigarettes and run the contest to see who could guess the cab fare from Peking to Paris and determine who Halibut Parks would be replaced with at the finish line. Would it be Dolly Parton, Mick Jagger, Sophia Loren, the Queen of England? Nothing like dreaming big.

Not the last Checker off the assembly line, but the last one sold!

We picked up the green and white 1982 A11 Checker in Kalamazoo on November 22, 1982. A live feed to Good Morning America let us tell the world about the strange and brutal mission the last Checker cab was about to undertake. We drove to Chicago, met with Playboy Magazine and arrived back in Toronto to much fanfare since Paul Rimstead had already written a half-dozen columns about our big adventure.

Nova Scotia Premier John Buchanan gave us the province’s very first vanity plate - Chubby.

Garry giving Nova Scotia Premier John Buchanan a lift

As we prepared for the Challenge it seemed everyone knew about Chubby. Thumbs up wherever we went, notes of encouragement on the car whenever it was parked, a media frenzy to see what it was all about. The ‘boys’ were on a roll until the call came. China would not allow the event to travel through the country and, since a Peking-to-Paris Motoring Challenge obviously needs to go through China, the organizers in England scrapped the event.

Nice, our big plan to propel us and Halibut Parks to global fame and wipe out that pesky financial overrun on Red Cloud’s around-the-world junket had turned out to be nothing more than an embarrassing waste of time. To top things off, we owed the Bank of Nova Scotia $9,700.

No problem. I paid the loan over the next five years and drove the Checker as our corporate car. I have a guest book signed by everyone who has ever been in it. For most of its life, however, Chubby has been in storage, including the last 12 years in the space from which I have just been evicted.

Chubby in Storage

I hauled Chubby out of there and trailered it to Larry’s driveway. I cleaned it up and got it safety-inspected, all the while trying to come up with a mission for the awkward beast. Who knows? Halibut Parks may finally get the trip he’s been waiting for. Or I might turn Chubby Checker into a Starship Taxi to ferry visiting celebrities around. I guess I better check out Bruce Springsteen’s concert schedule.

Chubby on display at the Maritime Motorsports Hall of Fame in Nova Scotia

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